Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Problems of Group Identity

NOTE: This was another essay cites in "The Tragedy of the Creative Commons". Though not related to the two essays I reproduced earlier, I think it is interesting as well, and so I have reproduced it from my old blog archives as well. (Eventually I hope to return to my one time practice of a more systematic reproduction of the several thousand posts no longer available on However, at the moment, I reproduced only maybe  on quarter or less, and so I find myself reproducing odds and ends either ass they are cited in new essays, or as I discover links in old posts that remind me of old essays I want to revive. But sooner or later I will find the time to do this in a more orderly fashion, though, ironically, these erratic reproductions actually make that harder, at least if I want to avoid duplicating essays.)

I was reading some discussion in wikipedia (a guilty pleasure) when I ran across an interesting discussion. In its own way, this debate highlights all the problems of modern racial/ethic thought.

On  the talk page for the article on Gavrilo Princip, there is an individual arguing, rightly I believe, to describe Princip's circle of assassins as "irredentist", as they were seeking a union of all south Slavs in a greater Serbian state, though it was often described as "Yugoslavian". What makes it interesting is the insistence of many moderns that there is no "south Slav" identity, only Bosnians, Croats, Slavs, etc. While the original writer argues that Princip himself, and confederates proposed to follow the Italian model with Serbia as Piedmont, and mentioned several times the "empire of Dushan" and a greater Serbia, the critics cannot get around their difficulties seeing Bosnians fighting for union with Serbia.

And this is precisely the problem I have with efforts to draw identity from ethnicity. Once we enshrine ethnicity as a political category, we are stuck with not just absurd rules, but endless pressure group warfare, every group trying to jockey for advantage, individuals trying to fit themselves into the most advantageous group, and ever smaller groups claiming advantages for themselves that are not given to the group from which they split.

For example, why is Obama black? We say he is, he says he is, but why? He is half black, but why doesn't that make him white? Why is Tiger Woods black? Why is he not Asian? Why am I caucasian? I have some tiny fragment of Cherokee blood, why am I not a Cherokee? Why are Mexicans Hispanics and granted preference, but Spaniards are not? And why is an Irishman's son, born in Buenos Aires suddenly Hispanic? 

For that matter, why are there "blacks" or "African Americans" if you prefer? Why not Zulus, Xhosa, and Swahili? Why are we lumping them all together?

And why are whites white? Or "Anglo-Americans"? Why do we not get Italian, British, Czech? And for that matter where does it stop? Do you get Italian or Sicilian or Messinian? How small a fragment of a group constitutes a viable ethnicity?

Before you think that last is absurd, look at any part of the world where ethnicity reigns. The Balkans perhaps or Burundi and Rwanda. For a time the big groups fight, Tutsi kill Hutus, or Serbs kill Croats, but once that dies down, the big groups fragment and start killing their own. Once we enshrine ethnicity eventually we are reduced to the kingdom of you and me and I'm not so sure about you. It is very easy to split groups infinitely once you allow for ethnic pressure warfare.

I know I have said it many times, but under what possible theory is ethnic identity a good idea to mix with politics? I know that much harm was done when race was a legally recognized category, but why doe sit follow that the cure is to recognize race even more? To make race a determining factor in even more facets of life? That is akin to trying to resolve the ills of slavery by putting whites into slavery to blacks, but making sure it is even more abject and horrible.

Call me an absurd idealist, but isn't it sensible to simply take no cognizance of anyone's place of birth, the place of birth of their ancestors, their nation of origin, genetics, religion, language, what have you? To treat each and every individual as an individual and leave it at that?

Or do we truly envy the amity and political stability of the Balkans so much that we must adopt their system?


And interesting aspect of this problem is that the government, to avoid racism, ends up following in the footsteps of the Nazis drawing up rules to define races.  Worse yet, they run into the same problem the Nazis did, the fact that there is no objective way to define race, there is no genetically "Jewish" race (nor "Hispanic" for that matter). As the Nazis ended up defining the Jewish "race" as "those who practice Judiasm or whose ancestors did", we have absurdities such as our definition of Hispanic as anyone coming from specific countries, regardless of parentage, or some ethnicities defined as anyone "drawing their identity" from some group. In other words, a psychotic who thinks he is eskimo is technically an eskimo under US law. Or, while I am not Hispanic, if my children are born and raised in Mexico City, regardless of their mother's race, they are suddenly Hispanic. And even  more puzzling, once they are Hispanic, all their descendants, regardless of place of birth, are as well. Unless they get lucky enough to marry an even more oppressed minority, in which case their children get to choose which is the most advantageously oppressed and claim that group.

It is not an absolute rule, but one I tend to follow in politics. If you policy ends up either producing absurd results, or leading you to the same governmental actions undertaken by either Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, then it is probably a bad policy. This one hits two of three, so I have to say it is time to try something else.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/10/05.

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